Today's lesson: Drying fruits or vegetables under the sun or in the oven.
The best ones are harvested at their peak. The slow drying concentrates the fruit's already-superior flavor, while compacting its bulk. The resulting flavor is more intense and far richer, perfect for use now or to save for more robust dishes later.
Drying takes advantage of extra-ripe fruit and the summer season's inexpensive prices. Concentrated flavors of dried produce can pick up the depth of just about any savory or sweet dish. And, less salt will be needed in recipes.
What kinds of foods do you dry? Fruits and moist vegetables work best. Fruits such as peaches, apricots, cherries and apples are my favorites. Tomatoes and chili peppers are the most popular vegetables to dry.
For the best flavor, select the ripest fruits and vegetables, even nearing the point of over-ripeness. Items of uniform size will all dry in about the same time.
Many of these foods can be dried under the sun on a hot day, keeping the heat out of the kitchen. Prepare as directed and place on a screen in the sun, covering entirely with a layer of cheesecloth to protect from insects. Keep them in even heat all day until finished. If the sun doesn't do the trick, transfer to an oven to finish.
Thoroughly scrub the skins to remove any chemical sprays and bugs. Cut in half, usually lengthwise, retaining as much of the juice as possible. Lay on a cake rack atop an ovenproof sheet or cookie pan. Season the vegetables with salt and fresh ground pepper and a few complementary herbs if you wish. Fruits may be seasoned with sugar and spices to taste.
Heat oven to 200 degrees. Place pan with fruit or vegetables on the lower rack of the oven. Position a wooden spoon at the top of the oven door to keep it slightly ajar when closed. The spoon will create a small draft through the oven to facilitate drying.
Convection ovens work very well for drying because the recirculating air flow inside cuts drying time in half.
Check the foods hourly to see that at least some progress is
being made. Small tomatoes will take 6 to 8 hours, depending on the relative humidity of the day and your oven. Check the foods every half hour once they begin to shrivel, until they are about half their original size and quite compact. They should still be supple and pliable, never dry and hard. Remove from the oven to cool.
Vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers are best stored tightly packed in a clean jar and submerged in good olive oil under refrigeration. The oil will prevent additional drying or foods becoming soggy.
Fruits tightly packed in heavy-duty, zip-closure bags and refrigerated maintain that fresh-picked flavor, but only for a month or two. For longer storage they may be frozen or, better yet, packed tightly in a jar like the vegetables but covered with wine or brandy. Covering the fruit with vinegar will also make a good vinegar over a short period. Refrigerate the bottles.
Savory vegetables, such as the tomatoes and chili peppers, can be used anywhere you would use fresh ones. But use less because of the concentrated flavor. Sun-dried tomatoes can be used on pizza, with pasta, on a rack of lamb, in a salad and even pureed for a boost to tomato flavors.
The sweeter fruits are perfect for a stand-alone souffle, great when added in pies, tarts and other fruit preparations and perfect for spicy chutney and salsa. I enjoy them best as a snack, or pureed with champagne and a few other condiments for eye-opening frozen cocktails.
To get started, try using the surplus fruit in your kitchen. Different fruit can be mixed on the tray and simply removed as each one gets done; no need to separate.
Makes about 1 pound
2 pounds roma tomatoes
salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper
chopped herbs of your choice, such as oregano or thyme
Heat oven to 200 degrees. Wash the tomatoes under running cold water and drain until dry. Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise and place on a large cake rack atop a cookie sheet. Season with salt, pepper and the herbs. Place the cookie sheet on upper rack of the oven and prop open oven door slightly with a wooden spoon to create ventilation.
Allow the tomatoes to dry until they are shrunken by about half but are still pliable, about 8 hours. Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature. Store lightly packed into a clean glass jar and covered with olive oil, or refrigerate in zip-closure bags.
Makes five 9-inch pizzas
1 package yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup lukewarm water, about 110 degrees
4 cups all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
In a small bowl, combine the yeast, sugar and warm water. Let set until it foams.